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- Gnosticism & Manichaeism x
Edited by Douglas Estes
Collected Essays on Mani, Manichaeism and Augustine
Johannes van Oort
The Science in Its Contexts
Edited by Alan C. Bowen and Francesca Rochberg
Simon J. Joseph
Since its publication in 1975, A Course in Miracles (ACIM) has continued to grow in popularity as a major feature of New Age spirituality. While the text of the Course is not a direct imitation of any particular form of ancient Gnosticism, A Course in Miracles represents an example of the emergence, reception, and popularity of gnosticizing trajectories of thought in the New Age movement. As a modern-day neo-Gnostic text, A Course in Miracles reflects significant trends in contemporary Western religiosity, especially the quest for alternative forms of esoteric, spiritual, and mystical knowledge and experience in a nominally Christian or post-Christian Western world increasingly disillusioned with traditional orthodox theology, Christology, and ethics.
Bonnie Nettles and Marshall Applewhite, the founders of the millenarian movement Heaven’s Gate, began teaching at a retreat they called Know Place, where one came to “know thyself” in the “no-place of Utopia.” This initial phase set the stage for a process of self-recognition that would become the hallmark of conversion to the movement, much as Gnosticism employed in the first centuries of the common era. The parallels between late antique Gnosticism and Heaven’s Gate are remarkable. Both posited two breeds of humans, one a material husk and the other an enlightened soul temporarily trapped on earth. Both proposed radical gender equality and maintained a rigorous ascetic regime. Both proffered death as a return to a prior state of gnosis rather than a disjuncture into a new life and afterlife. This paper examines the rhetoric of self-verification employed by both movements as it relates to a modified monotheism.
Neo-Gnosticism, from the O.T.O. to Scientology
Hugh B. Urban
This article traces the idea of neo-Gnosticism in a series of occult and new religious movements from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Specifically, the article examines the links between two controversial groups that both described themselves as modern forms of Gnosticism: first, the European esoteric group, the Ordo Templi Orientis, and second, the American new religion, the Church of Scientology. Founded by Theodor Reuss in Germany in the 1890s, the O.T.O. described itself as a form of “Gnostic Neo-Christian Templar” religion, with sexual magic as its primary ritual secret. Its most infamous leader, British occultist Aleister Crowley, also developed a full scale “Gnostic Mass” for the group. Many elements of the O.T.O. and Crowley’s work were later picked up by none other than L. Ron Hubbard, the eclectic founder of Scientology, who also called his new church a “Gnostic religion,” since it is the “knowing of knowing” (scientia + logos). To conclude, I will discuss the ways in which these Gnostic and occult elements within Scientology later became a source of embarrassment for the church and were eventually either obscured or denied altogether—in effect, obfuscated by still further layers of secrecy and concealment.
The author uses three examples from contemporary New Age culture to demonstrate that popular alternative spirituality, while having no direct connection with ancient Gnosticism, reflects some of the core concerns and ideals found in Gnostic writing and liturgy, including mystical experience, radical ecumenism, and expanded human consciousness. This intersection demonstrates that the modern New Age itself indirectly comports with key elements of Gnostic tradition.
Edited by Edmondo F. Lupieri
Edited by Jörg Frey, Matthijs Dulk, den and Jan van der Watt
This paper attempts to redefine what we mean by “gnosis.” It begins with a critique of scholars who—in order to maintain their supposed objectivity—avoid wrestling with the subjective experience of gnosis. They reduce gnosis to its literary, political, and religious contexts, and their explanation of these influences passes for our scholarly understanding of gnosis. Yet gnosis remains unknown to them. Once we dare to explore gnosis as a transforming experience, we can recognize it outside of the historical context of the late antique world. What, then, is the gnostic experience? Following Frances Yates, I suggest that there are two kinds of gnosis: the pessimistic, dualist, and anti-cosmic gnosis, and the optimistic, non-dual gnosis that sees the material cosmos as divine. I trace the lineage of this non-dual gnosis from Neoplatonic theurgists who speak of an “innate gnosis” that allows us to see the world as theophany, to its expression in our own American Gnostic, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
April D. DeConick
This paper owes debt to the field of study known as sociology of knowledge, which is interested in the social location of groups and their constructions of knowledge and reality. This project, however, is not about ordinary knowledge, but how gnosis, the direct knowledge of a transcendent God beyond the traditional Gods, became the foundation of a new form of spirituality in antiquity, and how this form of Gnostic spirituality has reemerged in modern America, impacting traditional religious communities and fostering new religious movements. Several social factors are involved in the emergence of Gnostic spirituality, including the dislocation of the founders and collaborators of Gnostic movements, the prominence of the seeker response, the revelatory milieu in which they find themselves, their reliance on revelatory authority, their push for alternative legitimation, and their flip-and-reveal and do-it-yourself constructions of new knowledge. Gnostic countercultures arise when Gnostic spirituality is mobilized. Much of religion and society are overturned so that we find constructions of the counter-self, calls for counter-conduct, the establishment of counter-cult, the deployment of counter-media, and the emergence of modes of Gnostic esoterization. The final section turns to the awakening, transport, and occulturation of Gnostic spirituality into modernity in America via artifact migration and alpha channels like Blavatsky.
Part 1: Theorizing the Gnostic in Modernity
April D. DeConick
The word “gnosis” is widely used in contemporary scholarship in a range of fields including not only the study of the historical phenomenon of Gnosticism, but also in more unexpected areas like translations of Buddhist texts, where the term has taken on a fairly specific collectively understood meaning. Broadly speaking, in the developing consensus visible both in scholarship and in popular culture, gnosis refers to knowledge that transcends ratiocinative, discursive, or dualistic forms of knowledge. Gnosis, broadly understood both in scholarship and to some extent in popular culture, refers to knowledge understood as the transcendence of self/other dualism. Authors discussed include Edward Conze, Theodore Roszak, Carl Jung, Andrew Newberg, April DeConick, Peter Carroll, Andrieh Vitimus, Ken Wilber, and Christopher Bache.
A Study of Determinism and Early Christian Philosophy of Ethics
Valentinians have often been associated with determinism, which has been presented as “Gnostic” and then not taken seriously, or been disregarded as an invention of ancient intra-Christian polemics. Linjamaa challenges this conception and presents insights into how early Christian determinism actually worked, and how it effectively sustained viable and functioning ethics.
Un manuscrit trouvé à Dunhuang, traduit, commenté et annoté
Cette traduction apporte une vision nouvelle de la Religion de Lumière, telle qu’elle se vit adoptée par les Chinois, ainsi que de l’ampleur du message du prophète iranien Mani (216-276), aspirant à une portée universelle et destiné à relier entre eux les hommes de tous horizons de par le monde, quelque soit leur origine, leur langue ou leur histoire.
L’Hymnaire manichéen chinois presents a collection of twenty-five hymns that were intended for the Manichean religious practice of the class of Auditors. The scroll, which came to light in the early twentieth century in the province of Dunhuang (modern Ganzu) after lying buried for around twelve centuries, contains several hymns transcribed from a variety of languages that were current in Central Asia during the epoch of its redaction. This translation provides a new perspective on the Religion of Light as it was adopted in China, and on the wide reach of the message of the Iranian prophet Mani (216-276) that aimed at universal scope and was meant to unite people from all parts of the world, of whatever origin, language and history.
The Egyptian Priestly Figure as a Teacher of Hellenized Wisdom
Christian H. Bull
Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta
April D. DeConick
This paper explores the relationship between deviance and esotericism, particularly as this relationship relates to the emergence of new religious movements and the processes of social accommodation and resistance. Applying sociological models for the study of deviance, I show how emergent Catholics use a variety of accommodation strategies to better fit into Roman religious expectations, constructing a public face to their worship along with ancestral ties. As they do this, the emergent Catholics dissociate themselves from other Christians, like groups with gnostic orientations, whom they have marked as different from themselves and a liability for the survival of Christianity. They begin to argue that these “other” Christians are the deviant ones, not themselves. Their willingness to Romanize certain aspects of their religion reduces the tensile relationship between their new religion and the surrounding society, increasing their ability to attract and maintain new recruits. To make matters more complicated, gnostic groups largely resist accommodation to Roman religious expectations, a strategy that powers their countercultural critique of the hegemony of Rome. They esoterize their groups by privatizing and converting their deviance into secret social capital. The choice to maintain their deviance by limiting access to their internal social networks affects their ability to recruit, grow, and sustain their communities in the long term. The social politics of deviance goes a long way to explain the rise of Catholicism and its domination over other forms of Christianity.
Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta
Taking Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Circular Ruins” as a starting point, the current article assesses the presence of gnostic ideas in the work of the Argentinian author. After pondering the context and sources for Borges’s knowledge of gnosticism, and providing an overview of different Borgesian short stories that include gnostic motifs, it focuses on an analysis of several central notions in “The Circular Ruins.” A comparison between ancient and modern interpretations serves to evaluate the new meaning that gnostic motifs acquire in the literary framework created by the Argentinian writer. It concludes that Borges’s reception and re-elaboration of gnostic thought helps him both to express some of his central philosophical preoccupations and to update these ancient myths, making them accessible for modern readers.
Jeffrey J. Kripal
After relating a dramatic near-death experience of a Houston woman named Elizabeth Krohn, this essay explores some of the themes of her near-death experience, particularly the invisible presence of a being of unconditional love in a paradisiacal garden and various direct transmissions of some traditional religious convictions. The essay then discusses some of the obvious New Age contexts and features of the visionary event and of the subsequent convictions, after which it calls into question these same assumed modern influences with a simple thought experiment. The essay then addresses some of the metaphysical complexities of the soul and soul-time in modern kabbalah as explicated by the contemporary historian of modern kabbalah Jonathan Garb and ends with another final intervention. The result, overall, is a comparative reflection that affirms and performs the traditional phenomenological and historical methods of the study of religion but also calls into serious question the adequacy of these methods and the limiting, even blinding, nature of their philosophical assumptions.
Kimberly B. Stratton
This paper examines the Teachings of Silvanus (NHC VII,4) as a specific exhortation to the attainment of wisdom by the Christian disciple. It discusses the significance of the ethical proposal to the mind, virtue, and freedom. Next, it highlights the principle values of the inner life as advocated by the document. Finally, the paper shows the extension of ethics in the sphere of spirituality and mysticism. This examination pays special attention to the Alexandrian theological legacy, which includes some notions borrowed from Jewish wisdom literature, Philo, Christian Scriptures, and two philosophical traditions: Roman Stoicism and Middle Platonism. The paper shows how the text’s rhetoric and pedagogy, although combining various philosophical and Scriptural sources, creatively constructed a unique Christian model of self-transformation suggested by the Teachings of Silvanus.
Part III: Pages 343-442 (Chapters 321-347)
Iain Gardner, Jason D. Beduhn and Paul Dilley
A Study of the Impact of Platonism on the “Fifth Gospel”
Kevin van Bladel
In Central Asia in the early eleventh century, the Chorasmian scholar Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī recognized that the Arabic works attributed to Hermes Trismegistus were inventions of recent centuries falsely written in the name of the ancient sage of legend. He did, however, accept the existence of a historical Hermes and even attempted to establish his chronology. This article presents al-Bīrūnī’s statements about this and contextualizes his view of the Arabic Hermetica as he derived it from Arabic chronographic sources. Al-Bīrūnī’s argument is compared with the celebrated seventeenth-century European criticism of the Greek Hermetica by Isaac Casaubon. It documents a hitherto unknown but significant event in the reception history of the Hermetica and helps to illustrate al-Bīrūnī’s attitude toward the history of science.
Christian H. Bull
Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891) developed a program of salvation that she called “double evolution,” which was elaborated in a system known as root race theory. Human souls were seen as traversing through progressive reincarnation a series of seven “races,” or body types, ranging from gigantic amorphous and ethereal bodies and transitioning through hermaphroditic into gigantic gendered ape-like humans, modern humans, and thereafter adepts and divine beings. Although root race theory drew from the scientific racism of its day, it did not equate root races with human races, but to stages of human emanation from and return to divinity. The sources of root race theory have been sought in Eastern contexts due to its use of Hindu and Buddhist terminology, though scholars have noted its Western esoteric influences. This article argues that the primary structure of root race theory is based in the Corpus Hermeticum. It identifies some of Blavatsky’s Hermetic sources, showing that she referred not only generally to a perennialist “Hermetic philosophy” that incorporated Western esoteric tropes, but also to specific Hermetic texts. These texts provided the organizing matrix of root race theory, specifically its creation mythology, support for prior androgyne human existence, a “fall into matter,” and the initial ensoulment of humans with mind, or nous. It also provided a template for the future transformation of humans into divine beings. The article builds on the suggestions of Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (2013) and Brendan French (2001) to elaborate on the role of Hermetic influence in Blavatsky’s reconfiguring of evolution as a novel form of salvation for an empirically-oriented nineteenth century audience.
By means of a dialogue between Hermes, also known as Mercury, and his son Tat, the thirteenth treatise of the Corpus Hermeticum explains how Hermes learned from God what is meant by “palingenesis,” usually translated as “rebirth,” and how, in the aftermath of this explanation, Tat’s soul was transformed. In his lengthy commentary on this treatise, the sixteenth-century Christian Hermetist François Foix-Candale interprets the Hermetic palingenesis as a foreshadowing of the Christian doctrine of rebirth by means of the sacrament of the Eucharist, and explains how this sacrament, which at the time had been rejected by the Lutherans among others, may contain the transformation of the body of Christ and the regeneration of those partaking of it through Communion.
Anna van den Kerchove
The following paper is an inquiry into the notion of truth in the Hermetic fragment Stobaeus Hermetica 2a and the Chaldaean Oracles fr. 107. In both texts, the truth has an absolute status and is considered not to be present on earth. This conception has consequences for the way of evaluating sciences, divination, philosophy and ritual. In order to study how these four topics are portrayed, the article analyzes other Hermetic passages, in particular that can be found in the Asclepius. The four topics are positively evaluated only when they are related to the “primary truth.” Philosophy encompasses the four topics and is defined as piety. This impacts the attitude that the Hermetic groups might adopt vis-à-vis the civic sacrifices, especially when the Decian edict obliged the citizens to sacrifice.
Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui
Christian H. Bull
The alchemist Zosimus of Panopolis, writing around 300
In Christen und Sethianer. Ein Beitrag zur Diskussion um den religionsgeschichtlichen und den kirchengeschichtlichen Begriff der Gnosis, Herbert Schmid argues that there are no hints for a more primitive and independent form of Gnosticism which developed on the fringes of ancient Judaism. Not only the Valentinian school, but also Hans-Martin Schenkes Sethianism and other early manifestations of Gnosis are probably best understood as early attempts to phrase Christian theology. In this context, the term Gnosticism is a useful category to describe ancient religious history.
Edited by Ulla Tervahauta, Ivan Miroshnikov, Outi Lehtipuu and Ismo Dunderberg
Michael S. Domeracki
The Apocalypse of Paul (nhc v,2), a second-century Valentinian text, imagines Paul’s progression up to the tenth level of heaven. Not only is this a reference to the third-person account in 2 Corinthians, but also a clear indication of the baptismal liturgy in the Valentinian text as the audience joins Paul after the third heaven and ascends through the upper levels while reciting the visionary tale in the first person after their initiation. Ultimately, this paper shows how the second-century Valentinian memory of Paul is a coalescence of his mystical religiosity and authority and the imagistic ritual practices of the Valentinians. Methodologically, this paper follows a traditional historical and text critical approach, augmented with social memory theory and cognitive ritual studies. In this paper, it is argued that the Apocalypse of Paul integrates of the memory of Paul and his ascent according to 2 Corinthians with contemporary Valentinian ritual practices.
For Neoplatonic philosophers, the Delphic oracle had authoritatively characterized their two great teachers, Iamblichus and Porphyry. Later Platonists cited the Pythia’s oracular pronouncement, “The Syrian is full of god; the Phoenican a polymath” as revealed wisdom. The Syrian Iamblichus, “full of god,” was more highly regarded in Platonic circles than the learned Porphyry, but because Iamblichus’ theurgical Platonism vanished after the sixth century, we are left with only “learned” reports about theurgic divination. Contemporary scholars are polymaths; we are the children of Porphyry. So, when Porphyry asks for a precise definition of theurgic divination, it seems entirely reasonable, and it is hard for us to appreciate Iamblichus’ barbed response. He chastises Porphyry for presuming that divination can be discursively explained and says he needs a talisman (ἀλεξιοφάρµακον) to protect him from his discursive addiction. Divination, he says, can only be known through experiences that awaken the soul to an innate gnosis that precedes dualist thinking. This paper will explore that talismanic gnosis.
Why did Sethian gnostic authors write pseudonymously? In addition to making a claim to authority, gnostic pseudepigraphy, exemplified by The Three Tablets of Seth, was multiple and performative, implying that the self is multiple—a manifestation of selfhood at different levels of a single reality—and that performing one’s self as multiple provides a path to higher knowledge of one’s self and thus of God. That is, gnostic pseudonymity stems from a distinctive understanding of the self and functions as a mystical practice that performs that understanding. The eschewal of pseudonymity in Valentinian literature reflects different conceptions of the self and of the path to gnosis.
Christian H. Bull
The Discourse on the Eighth and the Ninth (nhc vi,6) is a dialogue between Hermes Trismegistus and his son, during which they experience visions of the eighth and ninth spheres, above the seven planetary spheres. The paper aims to show that such experiences were not merely literary fiction, but actively pursued and allegedly obtained by those who followed the course of spiritual formation known as the Way of Hermes. A comparison with the Greek and Demotic magical papyri shows that these texts all show signs of “ritual realism,” meaning that correct ritual performance necessarily provides direct access to the divine realm, which should be experienced as real. It is furthermore argued that the Coptic translation of the text, and its presence in the Nag Hammadi codices, might be explained by the interest of Egyptian monks in visions of the divine.
Christopher A. Graham
The centrality of the expulsion narrative in their literary milieus gave these authors confidence that readers would discern these allusions. After considering the reception of the expulsion in texts circulating within the early Christian milieu, Graham turns to the texts of Luke and Irenaeus of Lyons. Both authors drew from an interpretive tradition in which a return to Paradise was desirable. Both celebrated Jesus's reversal of Adam's expulsion and the constitution of Jesus's followers as the location and means by which humanity could continue to access divine truth and life. For both authors, the Church is Paradise and the way therein.
Kimberley A. Fowler
The Exegesis on the Soul (nhc ii,6) allegorizes the degradation and re-ascent of the soul. Recently, scholars have reconsidered whether Pachomian monks produced and read the Nag Hammadi Codices, largely based upon codicological evidence. For Pachomians, the soul’s ascent from the body constituted the fulfilment of their ascetic regime. This article offers support for the ‘Pachomian connection’ by analyzing the Exegesis on the Soul alongside Pachomian literature. It argues that shared exegetical tendencies and a common approach to modes of ascetic practice and repentance strengthen the case for monastic readership and ownership of the Nag Hammadi Codices.
Bas van Os
The fragmented nature of the Nag Hammadi treatise known as The Testimony of Truth (nhc ix,3) has seriously impeded our interpretation of this remarkable text, the only Nag Hammadi text in which opposing Gnostic Christian groups are identified by name. Nevertheless, in the past decade, this treatise has become an important reference to the early Christian debate about martyrdom. The question should be asked, however, whether the passages cited by scholars have been interpreted correctly, if we have not first understood the rhetorical strategy of the author and the Sitz im Leben of the text. As the speaker advises an audience seeking after the truth, this text is best read as deliberative speech, despite its many lacunae. Viewing the text rhetorically allows us to reconstruct the message of the text, and interpret its arguments accordingly. When this is done, it becomes clear that the author does not try to persuade his audience with respect to martyrdom, but rather with respect to the passions of the soul that could prevent the soul’s salvation. The Sitz im Leben of the text is the shared discussion among Christians in general and Gnostic Christians about the efficacy of testimony and baptism for salvation, and the acceptability of sex and procreation.
Simon J. Joseph
A Course in Miracles represents a modern-day neo-gnostic scripture that reflects significant trends in contemporary Western religiosity, especially the quest for alternative forms of esoteric “spiritual” knowledge and experience in a nominally Christian or post-Christian Western world. While this text has largely been ignored or marginalized in mainstream scholarship, a critical evaluation of the Course, its editing, reception, and contemporary interpretation not only represents a fascinating case study in how “texts” become invested with “scriptural” authority, but illustrates how the Course’s claims about Jesus and God exemplify the gnosticizing trajectories in the contemporary New Age movement.
In five Sethian texts, the supracelestial powers Micheus and Michar are involved in the baptism of those wishing to be initiated into the salvation that would enable them to ascend to a higher spiritual level. The provenance of these two names is unknown. This paper proposes two hypotheses: first, that Micheus and Michar are corruptions of the name of the biblical prophet Micah the Morasthite (Μιχαίας in the Septuagint and מיכה in Hebrew), and second, that Micheus and Michar may be considered Micah’s supracelestial archetype. In favour of the first hypothesis, other examples of such corruptions in Sethian documents are given: Iesseus Mazareus Iessedekeus for Jesus Ναζωραῖος and δίκαιος, and Setheus for Seth. For the second hypothesis this paper refers to Melchizedek, Jacob, Jezebel, Joel, Malachi, and John the Baptist as other contemporaneous examples of heavenly or supracelestial archetypes of biblical persons. That Micah’s archetype was involved in baptism may have been inspired by the final verses of the book of Micah on casting sins into the depths of the sea, which was interpreted as a reference to baptism.
Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta
A close analysis of the views on man in the Nag Hammadi texts reflects that the tripartite pattern distinguishing three elements in the human being (intellect or spirit, soul and body), even if majoritarian, is not the only one at work in the corpus: there is also a group of texts reflecting rather a bipartite scheme discriminating between soul and body only. Irrelevant though it may seem, this difference is seminal, since it not only implies a different psychology, or theory of the soul, but also a different cosmology, which in its turn also involves a dissimilar soteriology or theory concerning man’s salvation. The present study, the first in a series of five, provides a first and general approach that intends to establish the existence of these two differentiated anthropological patterns in the Nag Hammadi corpus. Following studies will offer a more detailed and separate analysis of the textual evidence, assessing the anthropological frameworks behind the different textual groups allegedly found in the corpus, namely the Valentinian, Sethian, Hermetic and Thomasine texts.
Kevin T. Van Bladel
Proceedings of the Second Colloquium on Clement of Alexandria (Olomouc, May 29–31, 2014)
Edited by Veronika Černušková, Judith L. Kovacs and Jana Plátová
Wouter J. Hanegraaff
Alan Moore’s Promethea (1999 to 2005) is among the most explicitly “gnostic,” “esoteric,” and “occultist” comics strips ever published. Hailed as a virtuoso performance in the art of comics writing, its intellectual content and the nature of its spiritual message have been neglected by scholars. While the attainment of gnosis is clearly central to Moore’s message, the underlying metaphysics is more congenial to the panentheist perspective of ancient Hermetism than to Gnosticism in its classic typological sense defined by dualism and anti-cosmic pessimism. Most importantly, Promethea is among the most explicit and intellectually sophisticated manifestoes of a significant new religious trend in contemporary popular culture. Its basic assumption is that there is ultimately no difference between imagination and reality, so that the question of whether gods, demons, or other spiritual entities are “real” or just “imaginary” becomes pointless. As a result, the factor of religious belief becomes largely irrelevant, and its place is taken by the factors of personal experience and meaningful practice.
Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta
The cosmology behind the Apocalypse of Paul is interesting in many respects. To begin with it shows a peculiar ten-heaven structure instead of eight heavens as one might normally expect in a Gnostic text; it structures the cosmos into three clear, separate regions; and it omits any reference to the first two heavens. At the same time, Apocalypse of Paul’s cosmology is especially fascinating, on the one hand for the close connection with the text’s anthropology, which conceives of man in the light of the cosmological framework, and, on the other, for its description of Paul’s ascension as an ethical progress. Most interesting for the present context, however, is that this description includes rather transgressive elements, such as the presentation of the Biblical god as the Demiurge and a polemical view of the apostles. The latter are not only said to be stationed in the archontic region together with the Demiurge, but also to be surpassed by Paul, who is the only individual entitled to enter the divine region. After providing a thorough analysis of Apocalypse of Paul’s cosmology, the present paper provides an overview of the anthropological, theological, and ethical implications of its worldview.
This paper offers a close reading of the contemporary Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice trilogy and explores its deep roots in early gnostic spiritual movements of late antiquity, Russian esoteric philosophy and literature, and Western popular culture. Reflecting sources as varied as the Apocryphon of John, the Disney movie Escape to Witch Mountain, Russian New Age paganism, and esoteric Soviet science, these three interconnected novellas are based on the real-life “Tunguska event,” the great fireball that appeared over the Tunguska region of Siberia in 1908, flattening more than 800 square miles of forest. Famous in ufo circles as the “Russian Roswell” and long a magnet for esoteric speculation, in Sorokin’s hands this probable meteor strike becomes the springboard for a contemporary gnostic fantasy in which a giant chunk of ice carries the spirits of 23,000 gnostic demiurges to earth, where they inhabit human bodies that they despise and seek only to reunite and return to their source. More than a simple postmodern parable of the seventy-year Soviet regime and post-Soviet societal excesses, Sorokin’s damning portrait of his “children of the Light” illuminates the deeper and darker currents of human nature, ethics, and spirituality.
The Revelation of the Magi is the longest and most complex ancient Christian apocryphal writing devoted to the Magi. In this paper, after discussing the basic issues surrounding the interpretation of this text, I explore the popular reception of the text after my publication of it in 2010. This popular reception has been dominated by New Age and ufological (that is, the theorizing of unidentified flying objects) interpretative perspectives. Rather than viewing these interpretations as anachronistic, the paper argues that they may have far more in common with the circumstances that gave rise to the Revelation of the Magi than might initially be supposed. Ultimately, the Revelation of the Magi can be profitably characterized as a “gnostic” text—despite its lack of a demiurge—because of its strongly countercultural religious outlook, an outlook it shares with much New Age religious thought.
April D. DeConick
Because the gnostic heresy is a social construction imposed by the early Catholics on religious people they identified as transgressors of Christianity, scholars are entertaining the idea that ancient gnostics were actually alternative Christians. While gnostics may have been made into heretics by the early Catholics, this does not erase the fact that gnostics were operating in the margins of the conventional religions with a countercultural perspective that upset and overturned everything from traditional theology, cosmogony, cosmology, anthropology, hermeneutics, scripture, religious practices, and lifestyle choices. Making the gnostic into a Christian only imposes another grand narrative on the early Christians, one which domesticates gnostic movements. Granted, the textual evidence for the interface of the gnostic and the Christian is present, but so is the interface of the gnostic and the Greek, the gnostic and the Jew, the gnostic and the Persian, and the gnostic and the Egyptian. And the interface looks to have all the signs of transgression, not conformity. Understanding the gnostic as a spiritual orientation toward a transcendent God beyond the biblical God helps us handle this kind of diversity and transgression. As such, it survives in the artifacts that gnostics and their opponents have left behind, artifacts that help orient religious seekers to make sense of their own moments of ecstasy and revelation.
Iamblichus’s doctrine that the immortal soul becomes mortal is puzzling for Platonic scholars. According to Iamblichus, the embodied soul not only becomes mortal; as human, it also becomes “alienated” (allotriōthen) from divinity. Iamblichus maintains that the alienation and mortality of the soul are effected by daemons that channel the soul’s universal and immortal identity into a singular and mortal self. Yet, while daemons alienate the soul from divinity they also outline the path to recover it. Iamblichus maintains that daemons unfold the will of the Demiurge into material manifestation and thus reveal its divine signatures (sunthēmata) in nature. According to Iamblichus’s theurgical itinerary, the human soul—materialized, alienated, and mortal—must learn to embrace its alienated and mortal condition as a form of demiurgic activity. By ritually entering this demiurgy the soul transforms its alienation and mortality into theurgy. The embodied soul becomes an icon of divinity.
Throughout Enneads ii.9, commonly called Against the Gnostics, Plotinus repeatedly complains that the gnostics claim to possess an extraordinary capability to undertake a visionary ascent beyond the divine Intellect itself so as to attain the transcendent (and hyper-noetic) deity: a claim which he considers the height of arrogance. Plotinus further implies that this gnostic claim was in some way connected with the disparagement of Plato and the Greek philosophical tradition. No explicit trace of such disparagement has been found. This paper argues that (1) the extant Platonizing Sethian corpus, and in particular the tractate Zostrianos (nhc viii,1), envisions a complex hierarchy of types of souls, each correlated with both a different potential for visionary ascent and a corresponding position in the postmortem cycle of transmigration; that (2) Zostrianos tacitly suggests that the non-Sethian academic Platonists are those condemned to exile in the intermediary strata due to their cognitive overreach for the Good in the absence of Sethian revelation, and that (3) this reflects a gnostic deployment—against the Platonists themselves—of the supposedly Platonic injunction (in the 2nd Letter) that the soul’s attempt to comprehend the supreme principle, with which the soul has no kinship, inevitably leads to a fall into evil.
Dylan M. Burns
Scholarship has of late sought to “domesticate” Gnostic literature, situating the Nag Hammadi texts in late ancient Egyptian asceticism. Evidence about “libertine” Gnosticism is now regarded by many to be sheer fiction, entirely without parallel in the Nag Hammadi corpus. Yet not all Gnostic texts are so easy to tame; the Paraphrase of Shem, for instance, is a work replete with seemingly shocking material—ranging from the seduction of an archontic womb to a demonic sex scene and valorization of the Sodomites. This paper will address these sexually explicit passages and demonstrate that they derive from mythic strata associated with “libertine” Gnostic practices, particularly amongst the Manichaeans and the “Borborites” known to Epiphanius of Salamis.
Margarita Simon Guillory
Over the last decade, religious studies scholars have given attention to Zora Neale Hurston’s “Hoodoo in America.” These works, however, have not considered the important role of gnosis in hoodoo. This article acts to extend this literature by examining how Hurston employs secret knowledge to advance a particular understanding of hoodoo. Specifically, I argue that Hurston’s ethnographic study of New Orleans hoodoo captures a system of African-derived magical practices that is characterized by both gnostic and countercultural elements. These elements in turn reveal an intricate relationship between gnosis, human agency, and material culture that finds expression in the complex ritual system of New Orleans hoodoo.
April D. DeConick and Lautaro Roig Lanzillota
M. David Litwa
This essay argues that gnostic deification can be redescribed as self-deification. Self-deification, it is argued, is realized in three “moments”: (1) the intuition of one’s own divine core, (2) deeply reflexive practices of self-knowledge, and (3) identification with a higher divine self. These three moments are contextualized with the help of ancient philosophy and several gnostic texts. Finally, a case study on Simon of Samaria illustrates how the three moments of self-deification play out.
Sarah Iles Johnston
This essay starts from the premise that ghost stories of the late 19th and 20th centuries often engaged the same issues as older ‘gnostic’ treatises did (taking a particular line from Emanuel Swedenborg), but had the advantage of being able to describe encounters between humans and higher entities far more vividly than the treatises, and the corollary advantage of suggesting new ramifications of such encounters. It focuses on how such stories explore the possibility that, through encounters with higher entities who emerge as negative, protagonists discover that the divine world is either corrupt and ill-intended or (worse) completely meaningless. The first case, Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1890), is contextualized not only within contemporary reactions to Darwin’s theories of evolution (developing Adrian Eckersley’s study) but also contemporary conceptualizations of the debt that modern civilization owed to ancient Greece and Rome. The second examines how H.P. Lovecraft developed Machen’s ideas in ‘The Dunwich Horror’ (1929), where mastery of ancient languages unleashes horror. The third case, Peter Straub’s Ghost Story (1979)—an homage to Lovecraft and Machen—delivers an even darker ‘gnostic’ message: entities whom we assume to have purposes (even if dark purposes) have none at all; only the well-skilled narrative can bring them into order and save himself from perdition.
In the myth as well as the frame story of the Apocryphon of John, Sethian conflict with others is narrativized. For instance, Adam and Eve withdraw from the biblical creator just as John turns away from the temple in Jerusalem after an altercation with a Jewish antagonist. The gnostic authors of the text portrayed the creator so negatively that he is incomparable with most demiurgic figures in Platonism, Judaism, and Christianity. Their ignorant, boastful, jealous and apostate Ialdabaoth was shocking to their ancient opponents. And for modern scholars, this countercultural vilification of the creator makes it difficult to categorize the authors of the apocryphon in Platonic, Jewish, or Christian terms.
April D. DeConick and Lautaro Roig Lanzillotta
Matthew J. Dillon
Social scientist of religion Peter Homans has demonstrated that symbolic loss, cultural memory, and modernization are tightly intertwined. As a consequence of modernization, Western culture has lost a shared relationship to the symbols of its Christian past, leading to religious mourning. This article demonstrates that the category gnosticism opened up an imaginative possibility for individuals to reinterpret the cultural memory of the Christian past and achieve rapprochement with the tradition. The argument proceeds through case studies of psychologist Carl Jung, visionary artist Laurence Caruana, and public speaker Jonathan Talat Phillips. Each case exhibits how symbolic loss of the Christian tradition throws the individual into a period of inner turmoil. When each of them read ancient gnostic texts, they do so to reinterpret the symbols of Christianity, specifically Christ, in ways that respond to forces of modernization. The article concludes that popular and religious interpretations of the ancient gnostics should be recognized as attempts by those who lost Christianity in the West to re-envision its cultural memory and reimagine Christianity in the present.
John D. Turner
An examination of instances of Plotinus’s critique in the first ten chapters of Enneades ii.9, commonly called “Against the Gnostics,” regarding doctrines reflected in the Sethian Platonizing treatises and the Valentinian Tripartite Tractate insofar they may be appropriately considered as transgressions of Platonic metaphysics and of traditional principles of philosophical hermeneutics and etiquette that may or may not merit the designation “countercultural.”